How best can the UN keep peace in Africa?

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With the number of civilians (non-combatants) deliberately killed by rebels and warlords, during conflicts, there is a need to redress the mandates of the UN peacekeeping missions, deployed with a responsibility to protect civilian populations in conflict zones. Over the past decade, various forms of conflicts have erupted in Africa as well as across the globe; war crimes and crimes against humanity have been easily committed by warlords and rebels and the United Nations Security Council is yet to determine the best way to reduce civilian casualties in the conflict zones around the world.

In July 1995, with a UN peacekeeping mission present, a massacre took place just outside the ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica, a city in Bosnia Herzegovina. During the civil war in former Yugoslavia: Thirty thousand Muslim refugees had found protection in Srebrenica until the army of General Ratko Mladic deported them and subsequently killed eight thousand men. The United Nations had sent a peacekeeping mission to Srebrenica to ‘ensure full respect for these safe areas.’ Apparently, the UN could not live up to that promise.


In 1994, a different, yet similar calamity occurred in Rwanda. While millions were slaughtered in the African country, the United Nations stood by and watched. Peacekeepers that had been deployed to the area were withdrawn, while Rwandan civilians were left at the mercy of genocide minded Hutu militias. In Darfur, in Somalia and in Congo, peace has also eluded noncombatant populations, and many civilians have been killed even in safe-zones. Currently there are UN peacekeeping operations running in 16 different locations, throughout five continents from Haiti to Timor, and Kosovo to North Kivu, but the UN’s history is strewn with examples of its inability to keep the peace in places such as Srebrenica in Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur and Congo.

The UN peacekeeping mission is mandated to protect civilians, nevertheless their rules of engagement limits them to do so effectively. After reviewing the failures and successes of previous peace-enforcement (military might) missions and peacekeeping missions (humanitarian aid), a simultaneous deployment of both missions during humanitarian intervention may be more effective in reducing humanitarian crisis as the UN assumes the responsibility to protect non-combatant populations.

Rebel strategic violence, no quick fix

According to Swedish peace and conflict researcher, Hultman Lisa, in civil wars, rebel groups often target civilians despite the fact that their actual target is the government. “Rebels are almost always considerably weaker than the government and are often lacking the means for defeating government forces by military action. Therefore, they seek alternative means to pressure the government into making concessions. Violence towards civilians is one such strategy,” explains Hultman.

Researcher Tom Woodhouse insists that there is no such thing as a military quick fix: In some cases like Somalia, he points out, military intervention did not work, and in other cases, the winning side went ahead to commit genocide against the defeated side. Researcher Walzer Michael, however, insists that De-escalation of violence is vital. But at the most general level, studies carried out through structured focus comparison of the humanitarian casualty records of conflict zones suggests that the number of civilian deaths in conflict zones also depend on whether or not the deployed missions are mandated to utilize military force against the rebel groups and warlords responsible for civilian deaths and humanitarian crisis.

Researchers like Clapham Christopher have argued that warring factions can be made to retreat from civilian safe-zones or surrender and agree to peace talks when military force is utilized: “The war in Rwanda was ended not by the three and a half years of international mediation, but by the military victory of the Rwanda’s Patriotic Front,” stated Clapham. According to researcher, Berdal Mats, it was Operation Deliberate Force (The Air campaign initiated by NATO/UNPROFOR) utilized against Bosnian-Serbs throughout the country in August and September 1995 and it alone which produced the results that allowed peace agreements to be reached.

Necessary military force

Peacekeeping missions which often comprise of soldiers are sometimes armed, but do not have to engage in combat: Restricted by their rules of engagement they have often allowed rebels and warlords the opportunity to attack civilian populations and commit crimes against humanity.

UN peacekeepers may be mandated to use collective action (including necessary military force) against genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The soldiers that constitute the peace missions should be able to defend themselves and the civilians they are there to protect. They should be able to respond to efforts by rebels and warlords to undermine peace agreements, or attack civilians.

First step

Although there are quite a lot of issues to consider when deliberating over military force and humanitarian intervention, the necessary first step by the UN Security Council in future deployment of peace missions, should be to reflect on the fact that the aim of an intervening army is simply to stop the killing of civilians.

Peacekeepers mandated to use military force prevent, contain, moderate and terminate hostilities, frequently in protracted social conflicts within states. Conflict resolution theory suggests causes of violent conflict and a contingency model for de-escalation, within which military peacekeepers separate warring factions, stop the violence and work closely with civilians to reduce its causes. Military doctrine suggests that liaison, negotiation, and force deployment help to control violence.

The initiation of numerous UN peace operations by the Security Council since the end of the Cold War has been bolstered by strongly worded and finely crafted resolutions. However, the emphasis placed in such resolutions on restoring peace and security by all necessary means loses its resonance when UN troops are constrained by their national law from employing sufficient force to achieve mission objectives.

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